CARA Henderson is sitting, serene and still, before rows of children in a Blantyre primary school, talking about the murder of her friend Mark Scott.
It would seem inappropriate, this recounting of a savage sectarian crime to so many shiny young faces, were it not for the pupils’ undisguised hunger to hear it and Henderson’s ability to conjure up the living, breathing Mark: the teenager who loved and laughed and kicked a football, unaware he would one day become a catalyst for Scotland to confront its “secret shame”.When people die young and in shocking circumstances they tend to become defined by their deaths. Many people will know that Mark, a 16-year-old Celtic supporter, had his throat slashed by Jason Campbell, a Rangers supporter whose family had links with the UVF, while walking past a Loyalist pub in Bridgeton Cross on the way home from a Celtic-Partick Thistle match, in October 1995. They will remember he became a symbol of both Scotland’s division and its attempts to mend itself. But, Henderson tells the children, what made Mark special is that such prejudices were alien to him. “He was probably the most popular boy in his year,” she says, “and the reason for that was he liked all sorts of people. He didn’t put them in boxes or give them labels. He didn’t care if they were Protestant or Catholic or if they were ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’, he was open to everyone.”
I felt that if, knowing what I knew, I could still be prejudiced, there was no hope
Scattered around St Blane’s Primary are trappings of the children’s religion (Mark’s religion too, though not Henderson’s). A crucifix hangs on the classroom wall next to a display, with the words “This Is Our Faith” picked out in bubble letters. In the corridor outside, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. But there are also displays showcasing the school’s work with Nil By Mouth, the charity Henderson founded a few years after Mark’s death. There are photographs of workshops carried out with two other Blantyre schools, St Joseph’s and non-denominational Auchinraith, essays on Theresa Breslin’s novel Divided City, and footprints containing insights into what the pupils have learned. While grown men have spent the week arguing over the use of the word “Hun”, the children have a straightforward attitude towards sectarianism. Asked how many of them have friends in Auchinraith, they all raise their hands. “This project showed me that the differences between people don’t matter: everyone should be treated the same,” reads one of the footprint messages.
It was the same youthful idealism that drove Henderson to set up the charity when she was just 19. Still reeling over Mark’s death, she was propelled into action when she saw footage of Donald Findlay QC singing The Sash at a party organised by a Rangers supporters’ club. Living in England, where her account of the murder was met with bewilderment, she saw this as evidence that Scotland’s middle classes were ignoring the connection between sectarian “banter” and the violence that was perpetrated against Mark and others. “Looking back, I can’t believe how naive I was,” she says. “I was invited to Celtic and Rangers and I wasn’t even nervous. The point I was making was so obvious to me, I thought they would say: ‘Yes, right enough. We hadn’t seen it like that’, and everything would change.”
Henderson, 35, who now lives in Switzerland, has come to St Blane’s – winner of Nil By Mouth’s 2014 Champions for Change Award – on the charity’s 15th anniversary to look at what her idealism has achieved. In February, her contribution was recognised when she was crowned Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year and last week she spoke at an Inspiring Young Women event at the Scottish Parliament.
The visit has come at a turning point in her life; in 2012, as she was on the brink of moving abroad, she was badly burned when a gas leak caused an explosion on Edgware Road in London. Though she recovered from her physical injuries, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which let unresolved issues – guilt, grief, anger – rise to the surface. Only after undergoing a form of therapy called Somatic Experiencing was she able to regain her equilibrium and accept the positive legacy the trauma of her teenage years had wrought.
If Henderson has gone through a period of introspection and expiation, then so too has Scotland. Mark’s murder forced the country to take a long, hard look at itself and its prejudices. This soul-searching has led us down some blind alleys; the Offensive Behaviour at Football Matches Act (opposed by Nil By Mouth, which was excluded from the consultation process) has been denounced by those who believe it has breathed new life into songs that were already on the wane. But it is a measure of the charity’s success that sectarianism – once widely tolerated – has been put on a par with racism. “No-one talks about 90-minute bigots any more,” says current campaign director Dave Scott.
Interviewing Henderson is an intense experience. Small and dark with a pixie haircut and oversized glasses, she is ferociously intelligent and prone to a degree of self-analysis that makes Woody Allen seem out of touch with his inner psyche; at times, it feels like you’ve fallen through a trapdoor into her subconscious.
Her friendship with Mark began when they were both pupils at non-denominational Glasgow Academy; they went out briefly in the summer of 1995. When he was murdered, it was as if a grenade had been lobbed into their midst, sending shards of adolescent pain and guilt in all directions. Henderson says the school was at a loss as to how to deal with the damage. There was no counselling and when the tragedy was mentioned it was in terms of what they shouldn’t do – “don’t read the newspapers” or “don’t talk to Campbell’s lawyers” – rather than an offer of meaningful support. “I remember a teacher saying his death was a defining thing: there was before and after and it seemed to mark the end of our childhood.” Among the pupils a hierarchy of grief developed. “It was as if there was a code. You were only allowed to grieve according to how well you’d known him and there was a sense that some people were being too emotional or attention-seeking,” says Henderson.
She was not as close to Mark as some, but her distress was compounded by the knowledge that she too had harboured some low-level religious prejudices absorbed subliminally from the society in which she lived. When Mark had asked her out, she had canvassed opinion on whether it was OK for her to date a Catholic. “I too had viewed him in terms of his religion and that meant there was a connection between me and the man who killed him.”
At 17, she went to Oxford to study history, but when the Findlay story broke, she wrote a letter to a newspaper and before she knew it she had founded Nil By Mouth. What started as a poster campaign spiralled until she was taking her message of tolerance to schools, football clubs and prisons. Celtic and Rangers signed up to the charity’s Sense over Sectarianism programme, although the refusal of Scottish clubs to adopt Uefa’s strict liability rule, which would make them responsible for their supporters’ actions, has cast doubt on their commitment.
While the Old Firm teams were outwardly supportive, she began receiving hate-mail from extremist elements. Others, who didn’t actively abuse her, treated her as “a silly wee lassie” who didn’t know what she was doing. At the time, the abuse merely fuelled Henderson’s belief in her cause; she continued working hands-on with the charity for two-and-a-half years, before moving back to England to study law, becoming a barrister and then a legal adviser with the Home Office. She married and she and her husband decided to move to Switzerland.
But then, suddenly, everything changed. Before the explosion, she was already anxious. She hated using public transport, would always be casting around for an emergency exit. After the explosion, though, it was as if all the debris which had settled on the bottom of her life was suddenly churned up. After a brief period of euphoria, her mental health deteriorated. Past and present seemed to collide and she was paralysed by irrational guilt.
Recalling the school’s hierarchy of grief, she began to wonder if, in setting up Nil By Mouth, she had been attention-seeking. She would dream about Mark and wake with the feeling that she was somehow to blame. Worse, she became convinced her reaction to the explosion, which happened in a predominantly Muslim area of London, showed she still judged people on the basis of their religion. “When it happened, I didn’t have my phone on me and I was vulnerable because the back of my dress had been blown off. I remember the crowd surging towards me and they were all Muslims. It took me a while to realise it wasn’t a bomb and I was as terrified in the aftermath as I was when it actually happened.”
In the midst of her depression, Henderson believed this meant she was prejudiced against Muslim people. “Then that tied in with my sense of guilt about what I had felt towards Mark. I thought this had happened to show me that I was a bad person. And I felt that if, knowing what I knew, I could still be prejudiced, there was no hope.”
Through Somatic Experiencing she came to realise that, as a teenager, she had developed coping mechanisms which had led her to become detached from her feelings. Once she reconnected she realised she didn’t have anything to feel guilty about and achieved a state of self-acceptance.
Today, she seems happier in her own skin and optimistic about the future; she has quite enjoyed being made a fuss of – an experience she would once have loathed – but is looking forward to getting back to Switzerland where she is writing a semi-autobiographical novel narrated by her dog.
As for the charity she founded, it too is going from strength to strength; last year Nil By Mouth worked with 40 schools in 22 local authorities and delivered 20 per cent of the Scottish Government’s anti-sectarianism programme on 2 per cent of its budget. Over the years, it has faced criticism. There are those who view it as little more than a PR exercise. Others have suggested a desire to please everyone stops it acknowledging the real problem: anti-Catholic discrimination. But there is no doubt Nil By Mouth is responsible for putting sectarianism on the agenda. A generation ago, it was rarely discussed; now, if anything, it is discussed too much. In the past six months, the charity has been interviewed by CNN, Russia Today and RTL, though even Dave Scott concedes sectarianism is far from the most pressing problem Scotland faces.
Perhaps the inflation of sectarianism is born of voyeurism, a faux nostalgia for the Troubles felt by people too young to have experienced its bloody consequences. But mostly it’s because confronting the issue has opened up a debate about expressions of cultural identity. When Celtic fans unfurl a banner remembering the Hunger Strikers are they celebrating their own history or taunting those who have lost loved ones to the IRA? Scott says, for him, sectarianism is when you define yourself by what you hate.
Henderson shies away from the argument over which words or songs are acceptable. She does, however, have a clear view on the damage sectarianism can do. “The simple truth is being prejudiced limits your life. It cuts you off and makes your world smaller and less colourful,” she says.
Though the past two years have seen arrests in each of the country’s 32 local authority areas, and the internet has allowed abuse to flourish, Scott too is optimistic. A cultural Catholic who is married to an Episcopalian and voted No, he believes our identities are becoming more fluid and that the referendum has prompted a reassessment of who we are and how we relate to the world. “Sectarianism is still an issue, but when I asked the primary school children if they thought it would end, they all said yes. I am confident it will happen in my lifetime.”
If his prediction comes true, much of the credit will lie with Henderson. “We take our inspiration from her,” Scott says. “And from the fact that when no-one else wanted to acknowledge the problem, there was a teenage girl who was brave enough to do something about it.” «
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